Women in Bastan Village, Kurdistan

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Basra Peace Run: Yes, Yes to Peace-- Basra, Iraq

Imagine this: running in the streets of Basra, Iraq in the name of peace and non-violence. Retaking the streets. The slogan: Basrah, city of peace…Iraqis discussing the issues that most matter to them. This is not a product of my imagination, it actually happened last weekend and it was historical. The best part; I was part of it.
Running Line, Basra Peace Run, Basra, Iraq. Photo by Laura Battaglia

Basra Peace Run, Basra, Iraq. Photo by Laura Battaglia

Young people in Basrah took back their streets through a peace run. For some hours the streets of Basrah felt the sound of peace. Being the only woman running felt initially scary, but special. All people around me, especially children were encouraging, including the police guarding the run, which pushed their guns aside and were filming with their mobiles, smiling and affirming that peace was in the air. The participants were chanting: naam, naam li salam! Yes, yes to peace!

Award for the slowest and fastest runner of my category.
Basra Peace Run, Basra, Iraq. Photo by Laura Battaglia

Everybody won the race, the people of Basrah won and peace won. For sure this is the start of many other sports events reaffirming that Iraq is moving towards a future of peace.

At the same time in the north of Iraq, in the Kurdistan Region’s capital, Erbil, 5000 people representing 40 countries ran on a similar event.

Sometimes imagining the impossible can make things possible. As I was arriving to the finishing line, an Iraqi man came to me and smiling gave me a thumbs up and with it handed me a medal from the Iraqi National Football Team, as an affirmation of peace. Eventually I got another medal. I guess I was the only one in may category. I felt very blessed and humbled.

Basrah, once the garden of Eden, now recovering from decades of war, a city of peace with its beautiful people and a symbol of what the rest of Iraq will be in the future.

Running for Peace in Basra. Photo by Laura Battaglia

Friday, October 26, 2012

Mission Possible: Saving the Craddle of Civilization

After the lecture at Basra University-Marine Science Center and the peace run, things were pointing in the right direction. Being in Basra was historical, and after months of preparations, it was actually happening. Hundreds of Iraqis were gathered together, talking about non-violence and the issues currently challenging civil society to move into a democratic and participatory Iraq.

It was a mixture of feelings; I was a bit nervous but happy and excited. For the first time I was going to talk to Iraqis about the water issue and the Ilisu dam. Not that they didn’t know about it, but that we were going to be developing strategies to stop the dam. Sheikhs from the marshes in the provinces of Thiqar and Amara had come to Basra to participate in the discussion together with members of the campaign from Babel and Baghdad. They were coming together to present their experiences and discuss the impact of Ilisu dam on Iraqi people.

This was really powerful; I was sitting in the middle of the sheikhs, who in Iraq represent authority and respect, and Iraqi activists, and I thought, what a privilege. As we were trying to organize the order of the workshop, suddenly the meeting turned into a discussion of the issue and we started to develop strategies at the local, national and international level.  The sheikhs together with members of the campaign discussed for more than one hour and I sat there really excited as they talked about advocacy and direct action.

During the workshop we had a presentation from Jassim Al-Assadi, from Nature Iraq' office in Chibayish about water and peace. Jassim has been a strong advocate for the restoration of the marshes. A “son of the marshes”, he advocates passionately to keep this natural and millenary cultural heritage, dating back to the Sumerians. He showed pictures of the marshes back in 2007 when restoration efforts by the community had being successful to bring water back after Saddam’s regime intentionally drain them after the Iran-Iraq war. Then in 2008-2009 there was a devastating drought that dried the whole landscape. With these pictures he was trying to show the impact that projects like Ilisu dam are going to have in the south marshes of Iraq.

Zaid from the Iraqi People’s Campaign to Save the Tigris, a grassroots initiative started by Iraqis is working to bring awareness about the impact of Ilisu dam on Iraqi water resources. He presented some of their activities, which includes collecting signatures to support the submission by the Iraqi government of the Central marshes as a World Heritage Site to UNESCO.

The Sheikhs At this point, the workshop broke into two groups to discuss strategies at the local/national and international level to stop the construction of the dam. The two groups came up with ways that Iraqis can bring attention to the issue at the international and national level.

It was really powerful to see youth together with the sheikhs discussing the use of media as tool a tool for advocacy and awareness. There were strategy disagreements; for example, the sheikhs disagreed with the youth on the use of social media as facebook, while the youth were more inclined to use it as a tool for increasing awareness. In the end they both agreed that Iraqis need to be informed about the issue. The sheikhs were eager to organize more workshops in different provinces.  Although we could have stayed for hours discussing the issue, the workshop was an opportunity for organizing and engaging new people especially youth from Basra.

Iraqis discussing the local/national strategy

I feel very positive that this campaign is going in the rights direction and that despite the seriousness of the issue, people were hopeful that they can organize at the grassroots level to save the craddle of civilisation: the mesopotamian marshes!